I made a passing comment about John Dillinger, the other day, and it reminded me that I really don’t know anything about that, except for what is in Public Enemies and other movies.
In Public Enemies we are shown early on that FBI agent Melvin Purvis is a cold-blooded badass lawman: he shoots a bad guy who is running away and drops him with a rifle shot in the back from about 200 yards. “Shot while trying to escape” – it’s how US law enforcement works. Running away is a death sentence.
When Dillinger was shot, he wasn’t caught by the FBI due to clever sleuth-work, he was sold out by someone who was aware of who he was, who negotiated to avoid her planned deportation by the government. In the end, she was deported, anyway. I’ve noticed that the FBI isn’t really great at catching criminals; they mostly rely on publicizing them, offering a reward (or calling on people do do their civic duty) and waiting. That’s how you get things like the UNABOMB task force taking 17 years with (at some points in time) 150 full-time investigators on the case.
The actual moment when Dillinger met his doom was a great big mess. Here is how wikipedia describes it:
When the film ended, Purvis stood by the front door [of the theater where Dillinger was watching a movie] and signaled Dillinger’s exit by lighting a cigar. Both he and the other agents reported that Dillinger turned his head and looked directly at the agent as he walked by, glanced across the street, then moved ahead of his female companions, reached into his pocket but failed to extract his gun and ran into a nearby alley. Other accounts stated Dillinger ignored a command to surrender, whipped out his gun, then headed for the alley. Agents already had the alley closed off.
Three men pursued Dillinger into the alley and fired. Clarence Hurt shot twice, Charles Winstead three times, and Herman Hollis once. Dillinger was hit from behind and fell face first to the ground.
That’s not at all like what’s represented in the movie. In the movie, there are about 10 FBI agents positioned around the theater door. Purvis is right in front of the door, wearing a brilliantly white linen suit. Dillinger leaves the theater along with the rest of the crowd and Purvis lights his cigar – the signal. The FBI men begin moving behind Dillinger and pulling guns. It’s pretty unsubtle – one of the agents is shoving through the crowd, pointing a gun at Dillinger as he tries to get closer. Finally, some of the crowd start to bolt away from the scene, into the street and Dillinger turns, reaches into his pocket – the FBI guys begin shoving the crowd violently then Purvis shoots him neatly in the back of the head and another FBI agent shoots him in the chest. Dillinger falls. That’s that.
So, it’s interesting – the FBI is portrayed as ambushing him and killing him without him fighting or threatening (he never pulls a gun); Purvis, once again, shoots a bad guy in the back with a single lethal bullet. I’m trying to figure out if that’s heroic.
I wonder if the FBI’s public relations people got involved in making the movie. Because there are some parts left out.
Two female bystanders, Theresa Paulas and Etta Natalsky, were wounded. Dillinger bumped into Natalsky just as the shooting started. Natalsky was shot and was subsequently taken to Columbus Hospital.
It doesn’t qualify as “a hail of bullets” but if 5 shots were fired, 2 hit Dillinger, 2 hit bystanders, that means the FBI’s marksmanship was pretty bad. As usual there isn’t any question about whether or not they could have avoided a gun-battle in a crowd. “Collateral damage” as usual. There are some gruesome details about the two bullets that hit Dillinger, and the location of the impacts is correct in Public Enemies. They got the scenario pretty right, in other words, except for the bystanders.
J. Edgar Hoover was a tremendous innovator, mostly in the realm of wedding police work to propaganda. He relentlessly promoted the FBI, and was the brains behind the early TV shows featuring FBI agents as the good guys. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed a movie to show the FBI as firing into a crowd and injuring bystanders. The citizens are where the funding comes from, after all.
150 investigators on the case? Yeah, right. I know it’s hard to catch people who are careful (unlike Dillinger) but that seems a bit like an exaggeration.